Composer Interview – Daniel James

hybrid two composerTell us a bit about yourself – how did you first get into composing, was it always something you wanted to do etc.?

I quite specifically remember the moment I decided I wanted to write music for a living. It was upon watching a 9 minute video game trailer for Metal Gear Solid 2 which had this amazing score by Harry Gregson-Williams. It was the first time I consciously acknowledged music, I remember sitting there with goosebumps saying “I want to do THAT”

Of course at the time I knew nothing about music outside of the stuff my parents listened to (which at the time was alot of Motown and Rod Stewert haha) So I set about getting myself engrossed in the medium, making a conscious effort to note how composers put music to picture and how that made me feel. Once I felt I had an idea of how the job was done I set about putting it into practise, taking on any low level music project I could (student films or games) and really trying to work out my process for creating a soundtrack….a process I am still learning, and will continue to learn until the end.

If you weren’t a composer, what do you think your job might be in the world?

Its hard to imagine myself doing anything other than composition, however as a kid I always wanted to be either a professional football player, a rock singer or a game developer….I think the latter would probably be more achievable so I will say Game Developer.

Missing In Action by HybridTwo

Who is your favourite composer at the moment?

As much as I would love to just give a straight up answer here I don’t think I can, because it constantly shifts with the time. More recently I am inspired by composers coming from the video game industry such as Joris De Man, Jesper Kyd and Petri Alanko and then of course the guy that started it all Harry Gregson-Williams. I am sure the list will change again, but at this moment in time these are the names that come to mind.

How did you make the transition to being a full time composer? Did you ever have a part time job to sustain yourself or was it something you have always done?

When I first started out I had a part time job…one was working on a till at Woolworths, which has since closed down. The last job I had before turning full time was around 4-5 years ago working at a cinema, which was actually a great job to have as a composer. I would spend most of my time at work sneaking into screens and watching some big epic action scene or a love scene and taking note of the music that was playing, then I would go home and feel inspired to write something similar to what I had seen.

What is the most important tool you use as a composer? Software/hardware/mental etc.

The most important part for me as a composer is the computer I work on. Even if I had no software or samples at all, I would still have the capability to create my own sounds to produce a score. Of course having some software helps alot, but with sound design scores becoming more popular than ever, one could create a fantasic piece of work with the bare essentials.

Are you following any new software releases in the future that you think you will be interesting/fun?

In the past I would always purchase the software that would give me the best sounds to create a great score in the least amount of time possible. Nowdays I am always looking for the tool that allows me to be the most creative in achieving my own unique sound. So anything coming out that offers alot of creative freedom with minimal hassle will be the thing I get, day one.

How do you deal with the 64 bit dilemma at the moment? Do you use VEPro/JBridge?

To be totally honest with you, the whole 64bit issue has never really affected me. The way I compose music lends itself nicely to more humble set ups, combine that with Kontakt 4’s memory server (which allows me to bypass the 2gig ram limit) and I have a perfectly functional setup. I have never used VEPro or JBridge, although I am sure in the future as my setup becomes more complex, I will need these types of software to keep up with the trends.

daniel james

Do you write solely for custom projects, or do you write any library music?

All the music I have written as a professional composer has been for custom projects. To be totally honest I have never looked into library music. Perhaps one should? (looks desperately at empty wallet haha)

Do you write or plan on writing any concert music?

The way I write music for film would most likely not translate very well for concert music although the more I learn about orchestration, the more I would love to write something to be played to an audience.

Do you have any experience with writing for a full orchestra, and if so, was it a lot different to writing with VSTs? Did you experience any issues along the way?

I have not yet had the privilege to work with a full orchestra, although I have worked with live soloists before. From my limited experience I would say the writing for live players is a whole different world. When you are writing with samples, you tend to write to the strength of the sample, when you are writing for a live player you need to write to the strength of the actual instrument. You can do things with samples that you wouldnt normally do live and vice versa there are things you do on a live instrument that are difficult to achieve with samples.

The Fall Of Wily by HybridTwo

Who are your influences, in particular those who have influenced your percussive style of writing?

As I mentioned in a previous question I get mostly inspired by the soundtracks of video game composers, their music seems alot more free and creative, which I guess is a byproduct of not being tied to picture all the time. Its hard to point to any particular source of inspiration with regards to my percussive writing although I do remember listening to a few demos from composer Troels Folemann a few years back and telling myself I needed to improve!

Talk us through some of your percussive writing – what makes it percussive, why do you enjoy writing in that style, what compositional effects/mixing effects do you use to achieve that sound?

Well with my experience of working on film scores, I noticed that every scene has its own rhythm or pulse. So I always aim to subtly highlight that pulse and keep a scene moving along at its correct pace.

The main reason I enjoy working with rhythm is just that raw human connection to it. When you hear a rhythm you cant help but feel your body getting in time with it, a fast of kilter action rhythm can get your heart racing or a funky groove gets your foot tapping…I see it as the key to physically connecting your audience to the music and then using melody to emotionally direct them.

When I am writing rhythmic parts I try to approach it like you would an overall track, noticing which elements are background mid ground and foreground. Foreground elements are the ones which accent the important parts on screen, the mid ground supports the foreground and the background keeps the pulse. There are various ways to make these parts interesting, one of my most common tricks is to use filtered delays, so you still get your intended rhythm but you also get this interesting unintended rhythm which sits nicely in the background due to it being filtered.

You worked on the Bob Moog library for Spectrasonics – did you enjoy this? Is it something you’d like to do again in the future?

I loved every second of the project, creating custom sounds has become the thing I enjoy most about writing music, being able to share that with the users and all for a good cause was a great feeling. It was an absolute honour to be included in that project and of course if I they wanted me to do another I would be onboard in a heartbeat.

If you could go back 5-10 years, would you do anything differently?

Yes and no, I am happy with where I am in my career currently and I don’t think I would be where I am now, any quicker, had I have done anything differently. If anything though I wish I would have spent more time reading over more complex musical theory and orchestration books as now days I find myself to busy to really spend time reading.

What is your plan for the next couple of years or do you have one?

I am aiming to keep writing music on a professional level and would love to work on more video game projects. Just being busy is good enough for me though.

How would you define success?

Being paid to do something you love.

Talk us through Operation Big Eye- how did you start it, what instruments/vsts did you use?

Well my track to Operation Big Eye was one of my favourites because I was given alot of creative freedom with regards to which instruments and tones I could use.

Operation Big Eye by HybridTwo

I knew that for this track I wanted a sound that has a slightly scratchy and very rhythmic sound to it. I remembered back to one of my earlier projects where I attempted to play a melodic line on a bowed acoustic guitar but the sound was too scratchy, so I knew the sound would already be perfect for what I had in mind. I wanted to attempt to create some subtle tension through the rhythmic so I write two separate phrases for bowed acoustic guitar that had rhythms that sounded similar but were slightly different in a creative way, occasionally they were in sync and sometimes not. Those rhythms became the rhythmic bed for the rest of the track.

As for VSTs I always use Native Instruments Kontakt 4 to host my sample libraries, which in this project included some Symphobia, orchestral brass classic, True Strike, EWQL Gold XP Percussion, Tonehammer Epic Toms and Cinesamples Drums Of War 1+2. There is also quite a bit of Spectrasonics Omnisphere underpinning the whole thing.

Your tracks are always mixed really well – can you give us a couple of tip/hints on the basics of what you generally do?

I guess my main trick is to get the samples to sound their best. For example I may decide a certain part need a little bit more space or ‘air’…most people at this point would turn to a reverb. One trick I use is to lower the dynamics of the patch so that is is using a lower dynamic layer and turning the patch up to compensate, by nature of the sample you end up with a more ‘air’ like sound.

The other main things I look at are balance, by which I mean getting every instrument to sit together both dynamically and in overall volume. And second is getting a good sounding reverb, to make all the parts melt together into a pleasing overall tone.

Do you market/advertise yourself or do you find work comes by itself?

A bit of both, I wouldn’t particularly say I advertise myself much directly, although I do post quite a few videos online which seem to get quite a bit of attention, which eventually turns out to be pretty good promotion. Although for the past few years I have worked with, and made good friends with, a few composers who keep coming back to me for work which has kept me happily busy for a few years.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in their first year of writing music?

Be yourself. Don’t try to be the next John Williams or Hans Zimmer, they are already the best at being them. Be the first you and make sure you are the best at it.

Also if I had to give more technical advice, I would say, make sure you know your stuff with regards to music theory. There are those who think the knowing music theory will limit their creativity, and they would be better off doing it by ear. Which will work is some situations, but then comes that time where the director wants you to take a whole new direction, or you hit writers block…thats where being able to think your way out of the situation is invaluable.

Do you have any projects lined up?

I do indeed, I am currently scoring two short films (at the same time no less) One is an action thriller while the other is a drama about a girl forced into escorting. I am also planning to do a few more videos for youtube, covering some new libraries and synths I have not yet discussed. And finally later this year I am scoring a twisted horror film by Kely McClung entitled ‘Altered’ which I am particularly looking forward too.

Most composers will agree that its a demanding job and you can easily spend 10-12hours a day in front of a computer. How do you achieve balance between work/life?

Simple, I have no life. Or more specifically, music composition is my life. I think if you really want to make progress you have to dedicate yourself fully and keep focused. It helps, and I am extremely lucky. That I have people that understand and support me in this.

Can you recommend any good books/videos on composition/scoring etc. that you’ve read?

Composing Music For Film by Jack Smalley. Although it covers some technical topics, it is by no means a text book. Its more a conceptual or philosophical look at how to go about writing music to picture.

What are your thoughts on this argument: “Anyone can compose in their bedroom nowadays with the software thats available, so composers should be paid less due to the availability of so many young composers who will even work for free in some cases

Music is most definitely one of those times where you get what you pay for. Sure there are a ton of bedroom composers with all the latest sample libraries and loops but at the end of the day you cant fake experience or musical wisdom that only comes with time and study. These are the things that are worth the weight in gold.

What websites have you bookmarked that you find helpful as a composer/musician?

The only one I visit every day without fail is Vi-Control there is always something to be learned from those who work with music for a living, you will find plenty of them there.

Hear more of Daniel’s work his Soundcloud page or via his website HybridTwo. Also worth checking out are Daniel’s tutorials on his Youtube channel

Written by: Emmett Cooke

Emmett Cooke is an Irish composer for film, tv and video games. His music has been used around the world by high profile companies including Sony Playstation, Ralph Lauren, ABC, CBS, NBC, Lockheed Martin and many more.

  • Sung-Kyu

    I really like Daniel’s music, and his youtube videos have been exremely helpful. Thumbs up!

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